Styles Of President Bush And Ulysses S. Grant Compared

Roundup: Talking About History

James P. Gannon, USA TODAY, 19 Oct. 2004

Ulysses S. Grant is widely remembered as a great general and a poor president. In his new biography of the 18th president, historian Josiah Bunting III notes that pundits and historians have tended to write of Grant the president with" condescension." Bunting sums up this view of Grant:"There may be strength in his soul, but no fineness in it, no grace; little culture, small learning . . . meager evidence of the capacity to learn and reflect; no felt obligation to explain himself; no evidence of self-doubt."

If those words strike you as remarkably similar to the view of President Bush that is dominant in academia, much of the media and urban-oriented blue-state America, then you see one of the parallels between Grant and Bush that fairly leap off the pages of Bunting's fascinating book.

These similarities struck me with particular clarity during the recent round of debates between the president and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, that polar opposite of Bush in ideology, culture and worldview.

It's worth pondering the parallels between Grant and Bush because the American people are about to decide what qualities they want in their president, and the choice has rarely been starker. Bush, for good or ill, shows many of the same character traits, strengths and weaknesses as the Union general who became known as"Unconditional Surrender" Grant -- whose single-minded pursuit of victory at whatever the cost ultimately won the Civil War, but whose nave trust in and loyalty to his friends resulted in a scandal-marked presidency.

Man of few words

Grant was neither cultured nor eloquent. Bunting calls him a"stumpy, awkward, bashful man" of few words, who won a reputation in the Civil War as"a fighter not a talker." He was a rough-cut Westerner, a cigar-chewing general who would sit on a stump during battles, oblivious to personal danger, issuing terse orders.

As the casualties piled up and the Northern press called him a"butcher," he bulldozed ahead, never second-guessing himself through the blood-soaked horrors of 1864 to a final armistice at Appomattox, Va., in 1865. His tenacity, like Bush's regarding Iraq, was widely questioned during the war, but later cited as crucial to victory.

As a general-turned-politician, Grant was a poor public speaker. He could write clear and precise battle orders but couldn't give a decent speech. Bunting believes that was no handicap to Grant as president."America has always loved a tongue-tied hero, a Charles Lindbergh, a Lou Gehrig," Bunting writes."Here was the very incarnation of Act not Talk."

That, too, is what millions of Americans admire in George W. Bush: He is Act, not Talk. The contrast between Bush and Kerry on this count is telling. The president clearly was outclassed on eloquence in the debates, where Kerry's mastery of language and argument was evident. But Bush's record as president shows a willingness to make big decisions, take big risks, stick with a course of action and play for victory. This is the essence of strong leadership.

The doubts about Kerry run to the opposite qualities: Is he too indecisive, too politically calculating and too quick to change positions under pressure -- all too much Talk not Act?

This is Bunting's take on Grant's decisiveness:"Grant was willing to make decisions and live with their consequences, sustained, as William Tecumseh Sherman once said, by a constant faith in victory." Bush was willing to gamble his presidency on war with Iraq and seems sustained by an unshakable faith that freedom will triumph over terrorism. He will live with the consequences, which could arrive on Nov. 2.

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